American literature is full of male characters who cultivate solitude as a means of (self) discovery. Natty Bumppo in the forest, Thoreau at Walden, Nick Adams fishing the big two-hearted river: all have, like Whitman, somehow turned their backs on "houses and rooms" to "loafe and invite" their souls, necessarily alone.
Few women characters in American fiction share this situation; the solitary woman is far more often an absent or cautionary figure. Even the extraordinary Hester Prynne, with her heroic powers of transformation and self-knowledge, gives off vibrations of danger and loss. When she returns to her New England hermitage and resumes the scarlet letter, her solitary presence becomes a magnet for troubled women, whose needs she apprehends but is helpless to satisfy.
If we turn to nineteenth-century fiction by women, looking for portrayals of a solitude in which a woman might invite her soul, we encounter, instead, other hedged and fumbled efforts. Whatever her other achievements, Kate Chopin's Edna Pontellier fails as a living solitary; the only act she can complete, alone, is her suicide. Mary Wilkins Freeman again and again poses female solitude as a problem (and occasionally as an achievement); readers still hotly debate whether Louisa Ellis, the "New England Nun" of Freeman's best-known story, in renouncing her engagement for the pleasures of solitary housekeeping, is indeed selling "her birthright" for a mess of pottage. Louisa Ellis's experience suggests a pattern that is archetypal in literature by and about women. She finds her solitude, necessary as food, not by "lighting out" for some externalized territory that might also be emblematic of inner possibilities but by literally and metaphorically "going in"—into a house and housekeeping.
Thus, an American woman writer coming of age at the end of the nineteenth century, as Willa Cather did, found herself the possessor of a complex heritage if she became interested in probing the enigma of "the solitary woman." This was particularly true for a writer who, like Cather, might continue the American romantic tradition, with its many chronicles of male experiments in antidomestic withdrawal. Such withdrawals—those of Whitman in "Song of Myself," Thoreau in Walden, Hawthorne in "The Custom House," or Cather's own autobiographical male narrator in My Ántonia—typically became sources of art; through them a (male) voice was discovered. The best-known fictional portrayals of female solitaries, such as Hester Prynne, suggest the possibility that withdrawal mutes and diminishes the woman who chooses it, disqualifying her for life and for art. That suggestion must have seemed especially significant to a woman writer who believed that her art might require her to become a solitary.
Sarah Orne Jewett, in the famous 1908 letter that was so duringly important to Cather, had enjoined her younger friend that "to work in silence and with all one's heart . . . is the writer's lot; he is the only artist who must be a solitary, and yet needs the widest outlook upon the world" (Letters 250). As Cather left journalism and began to write about her "own country," she was putting into practice Jewett's uncompromising advice. But it took longer for her to come to terms with Jewett's most stringent condition: that the writer, while amassing worldly experience and knowledge, must also, in some essential sense "be a solitary." Cather's personal difficulties with that condition may explain some of her apparently abrupt alternations in domicile and life style. And in the fiction of the 1920s she began to turn to worldly characters, all artists in some sense, who found themselves contending with solitude: Marian Forrester, Godfrey St. Peter, Myra Henshawe. In the mid-1920s, she also edited a collection of Jewett's fiction, for which she wrote a critical preface. Thus, when she began Shadows on the Rock in 1928, Jewett's work as well as her advice were relatively fresh in Cather's mind. Shadows, published in 1931 as her tenth novel, is the first in which she attempts a central examination of domestic ritual as practiced by a female protagonist, twelve-year-old Cécile Auclair, in seventeenth-century Quebec. This book is Willa Cather's first full exploration of a world that was central to Jewett's fiction: the parish of conventional women.
As she turned to domestic life as a central subject, Cather also turned to another version of female solitude. Cécile, an only child, was removed from the convent school at eight, when her mother became fatally ill. Thereafter, she spent most of her days alone in her father's house, performing the domestic tasks her mother taught her. Recent speculation on the origins of domestic life suggests that housekeeping as a specialized, solitary female activity developed in seventeenth-century Holland, concurrently with the concept of interior life, "the deepening human recognition that the sense of reality exists within" (Lukacs 29-30). According to Witold Rybcyzynski, "Homely domesticity depended on the development of a rich interior awareness . . . that was the result of the woman's role in the home" (75).
No nineteenth-century American writer conveys a richer sense of the interwoven domestic and psychic aspects of this "interior awareness" than Jewett. In her first work, The Country of the Pointed Firs, she traces a nameless woman writer's complex relation to a remote Maine village where she spends a summer. Through her herbalist—landlady, Mrs. Todd, the narrator is inducted into the pervasive domestic rhythms of the village's life. Those rhythms are made and kept by housekeeping women who work alone, and the writer-narrator discovers that they are her true subject. She cannot write about them unless she experiences them—but if she gives herself and her solitude up to such experience, she fears she cannot write.
The central episode of The Country of the Pointed Firs is the telling of the story of the hermit, "poor Joanna." Her history emerges as the narrator whiles away an evening with Mrs. Todd (Joanna's cousin by marriage) and a visitor, elderly widows and lifelong friends. Jilted by her fiancé, Joanna Todd had "commited the unpardonable sin" by the "wickedness" of her thoughts toward God in her disappointment. As penance, she signed away her shore property and moved to a shack on small barren Shell-heap Island, to live out her life. When Mrs. Todd, then a young woman, "entreated" Joanna to return to shore life, Joanna replied, "Tell them I want to be alone" (75-76).
This tale throws disturbing light on the circumstances of the three single women who tell and hear it. Mrs. Todd and Mrs. Fosdick, thirty years later, are still perplexed by how Joanna managed her housekeeping: "What did she do for risin' for her bread, or the piece bag that no woman can live long without. . . . or company," they ask (58). Mrs. Todd reports that Joanna tended flowers and decorated her house with them; that she braided rush mats and sandals and kept a pretty dress "for best in the afternoons" (74). This seems housekeeping performed for its own, solitary sake: is Joanna's life a rejection or an apotheosis of housekeeping? Is the hermetic life on Shell-heap Island a denial or a fulfillment of female selfhood?
While such unspoken questions emerge, the writer-narrator recedes more and more deeply into reflective silence, and Joanna's tale ends. But in the next chapter she takes up the quest for Joanna herself, making a solitary pilgrimage to the hermit's island grave. Earlier, she had rather superciliously dismissed such a retreat as "something mediaeval" (69); now she concludes that Joanna's islanded life represents a universal heritage: "We are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong" (82). When the narrator returns to her writier's life in a contemporary city, she carries an heirloom given her by Mrs. Todd: a coral pin that had belonged to the hermit Joanna.
Before Joanna's tale, Jewett's narrator tended to oversimplify the domestic life she found in the Maine village. Either she turned her back on it, hiring the schoolhouse for a nondomestic place to write, or she sentimentalized it, investing Mrs. Todd's mother and her home with idyllic sweetness. But the hermit's story, physically and thematically central to the book, initiates a complex meditation, both communal and solitary, on the nature of the shelter. When the narrator visits Joanna's grave, she has identified with its occupant so completely that she confidently report Joanna's thoughts: "I knew, as if she had told me" (82). Like the older women, she must acknowledge Joanna Todd's retreat both as an endlessly compelling mystery and as a central part of herself.
Shadows on the Rock, with its subtly experimental form and its domestic focus, resembles The Country of the Pointed Firs in many telling ways. Set in the "close air" ("On Shadows on the Rock" 16) at the Auclair hearth, it is Cather's meditation on the nature of shelter, counterpointed by tales of the undomesticated Canadian wilderness. She too places at the physical center of her book the tale of a hermetic woman who never appears directly in the action: the recluse nun, Jeanne Le Ber. Jeanne's story is the center of the novel's central book, "The Long Winter," comprising the various narratives of elsewhere that engage and nourish Cécile through the hard, cold months. The tale of Jeanne, her favorite, is the only account of a woman in this section.
Jeanne Le Ber was a beautiful Montreal heiress, surrounded by loving family and suitors, who at the age of twelve (Cécile's age) began a withdrawal from that life. Under her "gay dresses . . . she wore . . . a little haircloth shirt" (131), and at seventeen she took vows of chastity. Eventually, despite her family's wished, her ample dowry financed a chapel for the Sisters of the Congregation of the Blessed Virgin. Behind the altar she had a three-level cell constructed for herself "from which she would never come forth alive" (134). There she lives, a young woman still-seeing only her confessor, eating coarse food, spurning much of the comfort that domestic life can offer, even in Quebec and even to a nun (the other nuns who figure in this novel lead comfortable, social lives). Alone in her workroom, Jeanne spins, knits, and works at artful ecclesiastical embroidery.
Of course, the tales of Joanna Todd and Jeanne Le Ber differ in some ways. Cather's character is more clearly an exemplar of conscious choice: Joanna is rejected by a man, whereas it is Jeanne herself who rejects her father's wishes and the men who vie for her hand. But the similarities are more numerous and compelling. Both characters have wills so powerful that they can reshape the patterns their respective societies offer women. They turn their backs on conventional sexual and domestic life, yet both of them project passion, and many of their occupations—Joanna's weaving, Jeanne's embroidery—are quintessentially domestic. Their meticulously ordered housekeeping is raised to a state of ardent awareness that becomes highly conscious art.
As a girl, Jeanne often knelt at her window, gazing at the spark of the perpetually burning lamp her father and uncle had placed on the altar of the parish church. "She used to whisper, 'I will be that lamp; that shall be my life'" (131). Instead of conventionally tending the male-given lamp, in patient housewifery, Jeanne chose instead to become that symbolic object. Thus she claimed for herself immortality and meaning, while forfeiting the knowable particulars of a shared, finite domestic life. Even the sound of her voice was subsumed into mystery; Euclide Auclair says, "We cannot know what her voice is like now" (180).
By their withdrawals, Joanna and Jeanne paradoxically give themselves to the very communities they left; they become their own mysterious legends, which nourish and sustain the villagers who perpetuate them. Jewett underlines this fact by the way Joanna's history emerges in her narrative: through the interchange of question, report, and invention, interspersed with reflection. Jeanne's story emerges in a fashion equally complex—Blinker brings the latest "news from Montreal" (128) of two angels who mend Jeanne's spinning wheel. Cécile quizzes him eagerly, and in bed that night she goes over the story in her mind, as she has pieced it together from many sources, adding the new "miracle." Like the other Quebec colonists, she will repeat and reflect on the tale again and again, embroidering it with "loving exaggeration" (136). It becomes her possession, her creation—a gift by which, Jeanne confirms her own artistry and conveys it to every receptive hearer.
In the constrained circumstances of Cécile's life, which all the colonists share to some degree, such tales are an "incomparable gift," ravishing as "a blooming rose-tree, or a shapely fruit-tree in fruit" (137). Such a gift does what art can do: it affirms and extends the regenerative powers of imaginative life, even in the coldest world. Cécile acts out her own small miracles as she keeps the parsley alive through the long winter and dreams of seeing an orange tree bear fruit in Quebec.
"Miracles" such as those generated by Jeanne Le Ber provide a form for "the vague worship and devotion of the simple-hearted. . . . From being a shapeless longing, it becomes a beautiful image," and thus "the experience of a moment . . . is made an actual possession and can be bequeathed to another" (137). Such language powerfully describes the experience of art. By making herself a solitary, Jeanne has become an artist as well as an art object. Like Joanna Todd, she has created a life so emblematic that it can be perceived as symbol and as art.
But the price these women pay for their apotheosis is the rich, shared particularity of their individual lives. The lack of such particulars pushes their devotees to affectionate invention. Mrs. Fosdick, for example, disturbed by the loneliness that she is sure Joanna felt, satisfies herself by deciding that she must have assuaged it by "making folks" of her chickens. Mrs. Todd's last word about Joanna is bleaker, and wiser; she both affirms the hermit's singular identity and acknowledges her own inability to penetrate it with explanation—"No, Joanna was Joanna, and there she lays on her island" (Pointed Firs 78).
Against Cécile's rapt version of Jeanne's legend, Cather pits another version: that of Pierre Charron, Jeanne's former favored suitor and the man Cécile will later marry. To Pierre, younger and more extravagantly ardent than Mrs. Todd, Jeanne's life is an unforgivable waste—worse than death. He admits that he has twice violated her cloistered privacy. The first time, she spoke gently to him in "her own voice" bidding him to marry and promising to pray for him, always. Later, when he hid in the locked chapel and listened to her prayers, that dear particular voice had become "harsh and hollow like an old crow's—terrible to hear" (180). The recluse whom Pierre glimpsed there was swathed in black and gray; with "a stone face; it had been through every sorrow" (182). Stripped of color and detail, transfigured, this embodiment of Jeanne is more than Pierre can bear. He cannot let go of her former identity without renouncing his own: "There is a such a thing as kindness; one wouldn't like to think of a dog that had been one's playfellow, much less a little girl, suffering from cold those bitter nights. You see, there are all those early memories; one cannot get another set; one has but those" (181). Pierre hears with rage and despair the groans and sighs that punctuate Jeanne's prayers. He will not grant her the universality and the distance that would allow her to be "that lamp," a shining object of art and use, to him. He demands, "Why is she unhappy, I ask you? She is, I know it!" (183).
Through Pierre's responses Willa Cather adds another and profoundly disturbing dimension to her meditation on the shelter of solitude. We may see Pierre as the ravenous male ego that cannot allow a loved woman to claim and live her own separate story. But Pierre is also a decent and loving man, a solicitous friend who speaks for some of the best, simplest values of the communities Jeanne and Joanna reject: "There is such a thing as kindness." He mourns that deep human loss which occurs when someone who has shared one's most intensely felt experiences chooses to absent herself, forever, and to discontinue that particular communion. Pierre Charron's private outburst forces us to contemplate the morality of reclusion from yet another angle. His story reminds us that Jeanne Le Ber is still a complex, living woman; her groans are a mystery that can neither be solved nor forgotten. The charming legends she generates, rich with flowers and fruit, are not the whole story.
Pierre tells his tale only to Cécile's father, carefully shutting a door so that "the little one cannot hear" (180). Jeanne is never again mentioned in the novel's remaining chapters, yet she remains an unforgettable presence; as Judith Fryer says, "her story lingers in the reader's mind like a fragment of a melody" (330). By the novel's end it is clear that Cécile cannot be shut away from the complex meaning of Jeanne's life; she must experience that meaning herself.
Jewett's narrator was in some sense the heir and successor of Joanna Todd. The hermit's solitude, her housekeeping ambivalence, and her emblematic power were incorporated into the narrator's life as woman artist, and in leaving Dunnet Landing she carried them with her, as she carried the symbolic coral pin, "a visible sign of female inheritance and attachment" (O'Brien 415). Cécile, similarly, is the heir of Jeanne Le Ber. In the book's last chapters, after her passionate realization of the depth of her commitment to the domestic rituals her mother taught her, we see feeling more and more alienated from that world of male authority, personified in the Count and her father, which hands down decisions that she must obey. Now she feels the impulse to retreat, reclusively: "Often [she] wished she could follow the squirrels into their holes and hide away with them for the winter" (Shadows 229). And now the Canadian martyrs command her imagination; she longs to seek out the "very places" in the wilderness where they died, avowing, "I would rather go out there than—anywhere" (134). It is increasingly apparent that Cécile, at least at this moment of her adolescence, shares Jeanne's extreme and passionately ardent nature. Judith Fryer notes her sensuous imagination (329). Many of the most rapturously beautiful passages of description in this novel are filtered through the girl's receptive sensibility, which certainly could be the sensibility of an artist.
Throughout this novel, Cécile has seemed an exceptionally educable and tractable child, qualities that have prompted readers such as James Woodress to see her as "priggish" (237), and Susan Rosowski reads Shadows on the Rock, quite plausibly, as the ultimate female saint's legend: an account of the education of the Virgin (184-87). In the novel's epilogue, set fifteen years later, Cécile, most complex and central of the surviving characters, is maddeningly inaccessible. She is mentioned, in conversation between the Bishop and her father, only as the wife and mother of males and seems already to have become a figure of legend. Even her father describes her in such language, reporting that she is "bringing up four little boys, the Canadians of the future" (278). Literally, Cécile inherits the man Jeanne rejected and instructed to marry another woman. In her marriage she is as remote as the legendary recluse, but her recession into unstoried privacy, unreachable via official, male culture, has been in fact the usual state of affairs for a woman in North America. We cannot know the inner landscape of Cécile's adult life any more than we can interpret Jeanne's sighs. Finally, we must perceive her as we do the hermit, as symbol.
Thus, by the narrator's and Cécile's relations to Joanna and Jeanne, both The Country of the Pointed Firs and Shadows on the Rock finally imply a fertile, enigmatic relation among hermit, artist, and housekeeping woman. The fact that Jewett returned to the setting and characters of Dunnet Landing in four important additional stories, scattered through the few remaining years of her writing life, indicates that the heritage of Joanna Todd was still alive and problematic for her; each of those stories deals somehow with the narrator's perception of an emblematic, isolated, hermetic woman. The implications of Cather's ending are even more enigmatic. For in this book, bearing the wide experience of her rich, intense life in the world, Cather returned to the traditional parish of women to probe the meanings it might yield to a woman artist. The finest fiction of her last years, "Old Mrs. Harris" and Sapphira and the Slave Girl, continues those explorations. No figure among her American literary predecessors could have offered more support and impetus for such work than the advice and example of Sarah Orne Jewett.
Cather's explorations have been continued and extended in this century's literature by American women. There the female solitary remains a striking, emblematic presence. She is the embattled countrywoman of Ellen Glasgow's Barren Ground, the fumbling explorer of Anne Sexton's last confessional poems, the defiant girl-woman of Toni Morrison's Sula, the reflective persona of May Sarton's published journals, such as the enormously popular Journal of a Solitude. In such works, again, the acts and language of art and housekeeping are suggestively, speculatively combined. Each evokes a story, like Sula's, of a profoundly "experimental life."
Joanna Todd and Jeanne Le Ber lived such experiments. For them, a hermit's room could be a world-and the life one kept in that room, steeped in domestic ritual, could be an art that flowered into symbol. To Jeanne, her "chambre," which she designed and purchased, was a "paradis terrestre . . . mon centre . . . mon élément." She preferred it above all other earthly places, whatever power or prestige they might confer: "point de Louvre, point de palais . . . me soit plus agréable. Je préfère ma cellule à tout le reste de l'univers" (136). That assurance, that confidence in the validity and the value of her own solitary female world, is the heart of Cécile's heritage from Jeanne Le Ber, and of Willa Cather's heritage from Sarah Orne Jewett.